Style City describes London as a concatenation of villages, contrasting London’s many different centers with many other cities, which tend to have a city center. Some people have suggested the center to London is the West End, perhaps Oxford Street or Piccadilly Circus but the fact is many Londoners go years without setting foot in The West End and whilst most will make it down to Oxford Street at some point, for many it may only be once or twice a year. There are hundreds of other places to shop and socialize. Some might argue the center of London is the city of London and whilst the city of London is the work location for just under half a million workers and for tourists wanting to visit some of the historic sites, many Londoners can see years pass without paying it a visit. You only have to walk around the city of London at the weekends, to appreciate that very few people live there, and that the call of the family turns the square mile into a virtual ghost town.
The fact is London has many centers, and is therefore, in some sense, decentralized. Many Londoners gravitate around their bit of London, and those that venture beyond, either to work or socialize, will have their own particular selection of London locales, which make up their own personal London, their own mental and emotional map of London. There is, then, no real center to London.
The decentralized aspect of London, and the limitations to which Londoners can get to know each of these centers, means that each Londoner’s London is slightly different from the next Londoner’s.
The decentralized aspect of London owes to the fact that London’s many centers were once, as Style City points out, autonomous villages, which over the years grew outwards and conjoined to form the sprawling mass that is London.
This point has long been recognized by scholars of London. Said John Northouck, writing in 1773, just before London would undergo the most incredible development and growth it has known, ‘In strict language, London is still confined to its walls, and the limits of the corporate jurisdiction of the city; but as a contiguity of buildings has connected it with Westminster and all the neighbouring villages and hamlets, the name in common usage has extended over them all, and rendered their respective proper names no more than subdivisions of one great metropolis. In this general view therefore, London may now be said to include two cities, one borough and forty six antient villages: viz. the city of London properly so called, the city of Westminster, borough of Southwark, the villages of Mora, Finsbury Wenlaxbarn, Clerkenwell, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Nortonfalgate, the Spital, White-chapel, Mile-End New-Town, Mile-End Old-Town, Bethnal-Green Stepney, Poplar, Limehouse, Blackwall, Ratcliff, Shadwell, Wapping, Stepney, East Smithfield, the Hermitage, St. Catharine’s, the Minories, St. Clements-Danes, the Strand, Charing-cross, St. James’s, Knights-Bridge, Soho, St. Martin’s in the fields, St. Giles’s in the fields, Bloomsbury, Marybone, Portpool, Saffron-Hill, Holborn, Vaux-Hall, Lambeth, Lambeth-Marsh, Kennington, Newington-Butts, Bermondsey, the Grange, Horsleydown and Rotherhithe. Beside which the villages of Chelsea, Paddington, Islington, Hackney, Bow, and Deptford, are so near being united, that they might without any great impropriety have been added to the list, and considered as appendages to this immense capital.’
The name London, itself, refers to one of these villages. Although London has always, in relative terms, been sufficiently big, that is has been termed a city, its original size, was just a square mile, and might be considered a small town in today’s terms. In fact the name the city of London refers to a separate political unity contained within the old city borders, what is referred to as the square mile, which still exists today. The City of London was, at one point, set quite apart from the neighboring City of Westminster and many other places such as Camden, Hampstead and Southwark, by fields, trees and rolling countryside.
However, over the years, the urban environment of the City of London grew outwards to encapsulate and enmesh all around it. So, as London Online points out, ‘Greater London embraces not only the entire cities of London and Westminster, but the historic county of Middlesex… and the many once secluded and ancient villages such as Harrow, Croydon and Finchley.’ According to Style City London, it is this process which helps to set London apart from cities such as Rome, Barcelona and Paris. Whereas the latter have clearly defined grandiose centers, ‘London has not one heart but many’.
However maybe we should introduce a caveat to this narrative of the City of London growing outwardly to envelop all in its wake. Other places grew in size too, and if one were a particular proud member of one of these other places, one might argue that the city of London, was in fact enveloped by their town, and that it is quite an injustice that the name London came to be used to describe this conglomeration. Indeed, the fact that the name London has come to be used to describe everything within this urban conglomerate is perhaps more a reflection of the power of the city of London, rather than an accurate descriptor of from where the growth emerged. It is interesting to note that with the city of London conjoining with the city of Westminster, located just down the river from the City of London and the site of the Houses of Parliament, that Westminster became subsumed by the wider London identity, rather than the city of London being subsumed by a wider Westminster identity.
Although the villages and towns that grew together to form what we know as London may have once been autonomous, the centers, which are a legacy of these former villages and towns, whilst sometimes being quite different in style and ambiance, are no longer autonomous. The whole of Greater London, is, after all, governed by the Mayor of London and many of London’s centers will share and thus be governed by a local authority.
- Sudjic, D. (2008) Cities on the Edge of Chaos, The Guardian, 9th March 2008
- London Online, Defining London.
- Style City London (2006).
- Hargraves, O. (2009) Culture Shock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette London, Marshall Cavendish Editions